With virtual and augmented realities, the device always seems to precede the purpose. This week Microsoft opened the doors for semi-public experimentation with its own augmented reality device, HoloLens, the wrap-around augmented reality glasses it first announced at its Windows 10 unveiling in January.
Microsoft’s wants academic institutions to submit proposals that show how HoloLens can be used in six specific areas: data visualization; education; communication and “distributed collaboration;” interactive art and experimental media; psychology; or something that solves a difficult problem in an applicant’s field. Five winning proposals will be chosen this October, with the selected groups given $100,000 each.
Following in the footsteps of Kinect, for which Microsoft developed an Academic Program under its Microsoft Research division, HoloLens is a peculiar technology, a mass market good without a mass market purpose. While Kinect was a huge seller for a time, its popularity quickly fell off and it was quickly removed from most Xbox One bundles less than a year after launch. Earlier this year the company stopped production of the PC version of the peripheral.
The Kinect was incredibly useful tool for many. Researchers at the China Academy of Sciences used it to design a sign language translation system; a startup affiliated with Seoul National University used it as the basis for new physical therapy software for stroke patients; DARPA used it to provide soldiers with PTSD a computer therapist capable of recognizing emotional states based on facial expressions; surgeons at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto used it to interact with CT Scans without recontaminating their hands on a mouse and keyboard. But for the most superficial uses—videogames and menu navigation—the device was an overly expensive tool that added unnecessary complexity and unreliability to a user’s daily life.
In development for five years, HoloLens came out of the same research that led to Kinect and is one of the first big products embraced by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, an attempt to create new product categories instead of catching up with other people’s in tablets, mobile phones, or Internet search. When Microsoft spent $2.5 billion to buy Minecraft last fall, a significant part of the justification was in owning something that would help demonstrate HoloLens. “Let’s have a game that, in fact, will fundamentally help us change new categories,” Nadella told Nick Wingfield in a New York Times story earlier this year. “HoloLens was very much in the works then, and we knew it”
Though AR has never been persuasive enough to drive a mass market device, it’s basic features are mostly familiar, from simple cell phone games to Nintendo’s simple AR games for its 3DS. In demos for the press, Microsoft showed HoloLens as a way of viewing its Windows interface as if it were a 3D landscape, with the ability to project display screens onto any surface of a room, while specific applications like a 3D modeling tool can be project on desks or tabletops in the foreground.
While these are novel effects, it’s unclear whether they’re better than a keyboard and screen setup instead of just being different. Though users can continue to use keyboards and game controllers, those devices were never meant to navigate 3D holographic interfaces, and the gestural commands that have one pinching, plucking, and swiping into thin air seem like functional compromises that probably won’t improve on the ease and efficiency of the keyboard and mouse.
Microsoft has framed the device as a stand-alone product, not something that needs to be tethered to a PC or gaming console. It comes with its own internal processor, and an unnamed Microsoft employee told the New York Times it cost “significantly more” than a gaming console, potentially putting it in the same market as an iPad or ultrabook.
“It’s not about ‘here’s the one thing people are going to do,’” Microsoft’s Kudo Tsunoda told Gizmodo’s Sean Hollister, “as much as it’s a multipurpose device and it really enables whatever you like to do. Now you’re able to now do it in a new medium with holograms.”
These sort of statements frame a conceptual uncertainty about what holograms are good for. With the epochal transition to touchscreens, Apple helped usher in the idea of what writer Ben Thompson called “continuous computing,” a period in which access points to computer-dependent services are are so numerous one never has to live separate from them.
The effects of this have been radical and are still developing, yet HoloLens along with its Google-backed competitor Magic Leap, seems to point toward yet another shift, turning the era of continuous computing into one of topographical computing. The graphical interface becomes a three-dimensional field of phantom objects. Our tactile relationship with the world and the physical laws that govern it are replaced with simulative fantasies and the mathematical laws that structure them.
The original announcement video for HoloLens promises that, “when you change the way you see the world, you can change the world that you see.” The sentiment caters to an especially bleak sort of defeatism at the heart of the computer industry, assuming the way we presently see the world ensures we are incapable of changing anything about it.
In an essay on the bathetic launch of Apple Music, The New Yorker’s Alex Ross describes our underlying anxieties over technology as rooted in “the elemental fear of life slipping away in half-experienced moments.” To counter these anxieties, we use technologies like music, with is “sensually clobbering immediacy” to calm us and so become consumed by a dependence on technology “simply because we don’t want our transient ecstasies to stop.”
There’s something both poetic and tragic about Microsoft’s call for ideas about how HoloLens might be used, a technology that we have communally willed into being out of a desire to continue being amazed by our gadgets more than our world outside them. Many investors are already swelling with predictions about how successful this rewriting of three dimensional space might be. Tim Merel of Digi-Capital told Fortune’s John Gaudiosi he expects the augmented reality market to be worth $120 billion by 2020, or, for comparison, four times what the App Store has earned for developers during its entire lifespan.
There is something perverse in this optimism. As with Kinect, all of the productive and potentially useful qualities of any technology are held hostage by its ability to keep the mass market amused with tricks and trivialities. We cannot conceive of technology as a field driven by intellectual decadence and commercial waste. Companies like Microsoft pursue productive and academic projects that demonstrate some conceptual good in the tools they intend to mass produce and sell at wild markups, most of which will end up being used to stream Netflix, view porn, poke at animated cartoon characters, or video chat with our distant friends. And all of which will be thrown aside in three or four years when a new version becomes available.
Microsoft has promised HoloLens will be released at some point during the life of Windows 10, which is set to begin its release at the end of this month. If it succeeds, it will likely be in spite of all of the good it is capable of doing, rather than because of it.
This article was written by Michael Thomsen from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.